‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton

Non-fiction – paperback; University of Melbourne Press; 191 pages; 2018.

Journalist Rick Morton exposes the myth that Australia is an egalitarian society in his brutally honest memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt.

Morton, a social affairs writer for The Australian, writes about his upbringing on a remote cattle station in the Queensland outback, his coming out as a gay man and his subsequent struggle to make a name for himself in a profession dominated by the middle-classes. Dotted along the way we learn about his older brother’s drug problems, his sister’s love of guns and hunting and traditional outback life, and his mother’s ongoing efforts to try to raise herself above the poverty line.

He structures his book thematically, rather than chronologically, and in doing so highlights a host of important issues including poverty and privilege, the class system, mental health, drug addiction, domestic violence, homophobia and intergenerational trauma.

But this is also a story about family and how the forces within and outwith can shape and test and impact familial units. And very often it is the personalities within those families that have the most influence — and not always in a good way.

Toxic relationships

Morton explains how his family’s world was dominated by his paternal grandfather’s toxic masculinity, from which there was no escape — even with all that space in the outback. A physically abusive man — “My father was five when his own dad threw him into a wall and ruptured his spleen” — his reign of terror had long-lasting repercussions on the family. It was a cycle Morton did not want to repeat.

Morton’s own father — who clearly lacked emotional resilience, no doubt through his own troubled upbringing — deserted the family when Morton’s older brother suffered terrible burns in a fire as a young boy. Morton and his siblings (he has a younger sister, too) were raised by his now single mother, a woman with next to no education and little experience of the world beyond the farm. The book reads very much as a tribute to her resilience and compassion and love.

Crucially, however, our story is also that of a mother who tried to love enough for the failures of everyone around her. This is a foray into an Australia on the outside of public consciousness, one whose egalitarian core is ruptured by ordeals of illness and poverty, and people who have never been taught how to be vulnerable and, in doing so, make misery wherever they go.

There’s no doubt that One Hundred Years of Dirt deals with some heavy topics, but it’s written in an engaging and entertaining manner.

Initially, I found the structure a bit odd, because the narrative is not straightforward, but once I realised the book was shaped around thematic chapters, many of which could be read as standalone essays, it began to resonate — and hit home.

Clearly written from a place of anger, the book posits some vital questions about wealth distribution, social justice, poverty and privilege. Read between the lines and it’s a call to level the playing field, to change the way we think about welfare, to give people opportunities based on merit not money, to diversify our board rooms and newsrooms and political chambers so that we can break down the often invisible institutional barriers currently in place.

One Hundred Years of Dirt is a truly compelling read and a brilliant example of showing how personal experience is shaped by the larger social and political structures that make up modern-day Australia. It should be required reading for politicians, policymakers and educators everywhere.

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5 thoughts on “‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton

  1. A call to level the playing field, I couldn’t agree more.
    Poverty everywhere is something Australia should be ashamed of, but rural poverty seems even more bleak without the free resources that are available in cities. I’m not just thinking of things like food banks, but also that a poor city child can, for example, go to the library and access not just books but also computers, the internet, special activities for kids (anything from storytime to drama or painting sessions). There are community centres too, and councils put on lots of free stuff. There are OpShops to buy things inexpensively and the other kids are not going to recognise what you’re wearing or playing with as their cast offs.
    None of this is an argument for leaving things the way they are. I don’t know how Australians have become so mean that they can overlook the unfairness of our economy. I’d really like things to change.

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    • Australians have become complacent as a result of becoming very affluent… I think there’s an assumption that they’ve worked hard for that, but let’s be honest, it’s off the back of a resources boom — it’s just luck, not merit.

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  2. This has been one of my books of the year. I happened to have just finished ‘The Lost Man’, which is a fictionalised version of the same situation. I enjoyed that, but the Morton is a much richer read.

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